I was a shy kid with high blood pressure. I grew into a skinny adolescent whom other kids teased and called “Pee-Wee.” I wasn’t the fastest kid in my school, or the strongest, or even the smartest. I was common as grass, longing for something I couldn’t even name. I was like everyone else, the same. Then I found something.
I’m not going to offer any vague parables about inspiration and belief. I’m not going to promise you that if you want to achieve your dream, all you need is faith. No, I am going to show you—in concrete terms—how I transformed myself from the inside out and how you can do it too. Whether you’re a marathoner or weekend jogger, swimmer or cyclist, young or old, fit or fat, you can do this. I know because I did it.
The story of my life is going to sound very familiar. Not in the details (unless you’ve found yourself face down in Death Valley, that is), but in the desire. It’s the tale of everyone who has ever felt stuck, of anyone who has dreamed of doing more, of being more.
I was stuck like that a few years ago in one of the lowest, hottest spots on the planet. That’s where I’ll start my story. That’s where I’ll start your story.
DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA, 2005
The best way out is always through.
My brain was on fire. My body was burning up. Death Valley had laid me out flat, and now it was cooking me. My crew was telling me to get up, that they knew I could go on, but I could barely hear them. I was too busy puking, then watching the stream of liquid evaporate in the circle of light from my headlamp almost as fast as it splashed down on the steaming pavement. It was an hour before midnight, 105 incinerating, soul-sucking degrees. This was supposed to be my time. This was the point in a race where I had made a career of locating hidden reservoirs of sheer will that others didn’t possess, discovering powers that propelled me to distances and speeds that others couldn’t match. But tonight, roasting on the pavement, all I could summon was the memory of a television commercial I had seen as a child. First there’s an egg in someone’s fingers and a voice says, “This is your brain.” Then the owner of the hand cracks the egg, and as it sizzles and crackles onto a hot skillet, the voice says, “And this is your brain on drugs.” I saw that image in the scorching nighttime sky. I heard the disembodied voice. But what I thought was: “This is my brain on Badwater.”
I had just run 70 miles through a place where others had died walking, and I had 65 more to go. I reminded myself that this was the point in the race where I was supposed to dust anyone foolish enough to have kept up with me in the first half. In fact, I had started this race intending to shatter its record never mind worry about winning it. And now I didn’t think I could finish.
There was only one answer: Get up and run. Whatever the problem in my life, the solution had always been the same: Keep going! My lungs might be screaming for oxygen, my muscles might be crying in agony, but I had always known the answer lay in my mind. Tired tendons had begged for rest in other places, my flesh had demanded relief, but I had been able to keep running because of my mind. But not now. What had gone wrong?
Running was what I did. Running was what I loved. Running was—to a large extent—who I was. In the sport I had chosen as avocation, career, obsession, and unerring but merciless teacher, running was how I answered any challenge.
Technically speaking, I was an ultramarathoner. So I competed in any foot race longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. In point of fact, though, I had fashioned a career from running and winning races of at least 50 miles, most often 100, and every so often 135 and 150 miles. Some I had led from start to finish, others I had stayed comfortably back until the point when I needed to find another gear. So why was I on the side of the road vomiting, unable to go on?
Never mind my success. People had warned me that this race—this 135-mile jaunt through Death Valley—was too long and that I hadn’t given my body enough time to recover from my last race—a race I had won just two weeks earlier, the rugged and prestigious Western States 100 Mile. People had said that my diet—I had been eating only plant-based foods for seven years—would never sustain me. No one had voiced what I now suspected might be my real problem—that I had underestimated the race itself.
Some ultras curve through level virgin forest, next to melodious streams, past fields of wildflowers. Some ultras occur in the cool melancholy of autumn, others in the invigorating chill of early spring.
Then there were the ultras like the one that had felled me. Its proper name was the Badwater UltraMarathon. Competitors called it the Badwater 135, and a lot of people knew it as “the toughest foot race on earth.”
But I hadn’t taken such talk too seriously. I thought I had run more difficult courses. I thought I had faced much faster, tougher competition. I had raced in snow and rain, won events in far corners of the earth. I had scrambled up loose rock, over peaks of 14,000 feet. I had hopscotched down boulder fields, forded across icy streams. I was used to trails that caused deer to stumble and falter.
Sure, the Badwater flat-lined through Death Valley at the hottest time of the year. And yes, according to Badwater legend, one year when a shoe company handed out its product to all entrants, many of the soles supposedly melted on the scorching pavement.
But that was just a story, right? And though the Badwater did sizzle and though it was longer than I usually race, its brutality was unidimensional. I was used to forbidding terrain, climate, and competition. Other ultras inspire not just reverence but fear. The Badwater? The truth is, a lot of the most accomplished and well-known ultrarunners had never run it. Yeah, Death Valley made it sound ominous, if not fatal, but when you are in a zone running at levels one might call superhuman, tales of danger and death aren’t uncommon. Ultrarunners liked the stories but didn’t dwell on them. We couldn’t.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared; in my line of work, lack of preparation was tantamount to self-abuse. I had purchased an industrial-sized sprayer so that I could be hosed down at regular intervals. I had worn specially designed heat-reflecting pants and shirt. I had guzzled 60 ounces of water (the equivalent of three bicycle bottles) every hour for the first 6 hours of the race. But those precautions were designed to shield my body. No industrial sprayer was going to protect my mind. And an ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything.
Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility. To be a champion, you have to believe that you can destroy your competition. But you also have to realize that winning requires total commitment, and a wavering of focus, a lack of drive, a single misstep, might lead to defeat or worse. Had I been too confident, not humble enough?
Early in the race, after 17 miles, a marine who had dropped out saluted me as I ran past him because he knew my reputation. Another runner, a desert race veteran, dropped out about 30 miles later, right about the time he realized his urine was flowing dark as coffee. He knew my reputation, too. But my reputation wasn’t helping me now. Neither was my earlier confidence.
The leader was a fifty-year-old ship pilot and cliff diver named Mike Sweeney, whose high dive training had included smacking himself on the head. Trailing him was a forty-eight-year-old Canadian baggage handler named Ferg Hawke, who was fond of quoting Friedrich Nietzsche.
Journalists in the running press called me “the Real Deal.” But was I? Or was I a fraud?
Moments of questioning come to us all. It is human nature to ask why we put ourselves in certain situations and why life places hurdles in our path. Only the most saintly and delusional among us welcomes all pain as challenge, perceives all loss as harsh blessing. I know that. I know that I’ve chosen a sport stuffed with long stretches of agony, that I belong to a small, eclectic community of men and women where status is calibrated precisely as a function of one’s ability to endure. Hallucinations and vomiting, to me and my fellow ultrarunners, are like grass stains to Little Leaguers. Chafing, black toenails, and dehydration are just the rites of passage for those of us who race 50 and 100 miles and more. A marathon is a peaceful prologue, a time to think and work out kinks. Ultrarunners often blister so badly they have to tear off toenails to relieve pressure. One ultrarunner had his surgically removed before a race, just in case, so he wouldn’t need to bother later on. Cramps don’t merit attention. Unless nearby lightning makes the hair on your arms and head stand up and dance, it’s nothing but scenery. Altitude headaches are as common as sweat and inspire approximately the same degree of concern (the death by brain aneurysm of one runner in a Colorado race notwithstanding). Aches are either ignored, embraced, or, for some, treated with ibuprofen, which can be risky. Combined with heavy sweating, too much ibuprofen can cause kidney failure, which usually results in ghostly pallor and, if you’re lucky, an airlift by helicopter to the nearest hospital. As an ultrarunner buddy and physician once said, “Not all pain is significant.”
Ultrarunners take off at sunrise and continue through sunset, moonrise, and another sunrise, sunset, and moonrise. Sometimes we stumble from exhaustion and double over with pain, while other times we effortlessly float over rocky trails and hammer up a 3,000-foot climb after accessing an unknown source of strength. We run with bruised bones and scraped skin. It’s a hard, simple calculus: Run until you can’t run anymore. Then run some more. Find a new source of energy and will. Then run even faster.
Other sports take safety precautions, but in ultramarathons, we have death-avoiding precautions baked into the enterprise. Most ultras are dotted with aid stations, where runners are tracked, sometimes weighed, and provided with snacks, shade, and medical checkups. The majority of races also include pacers, who are allowed to accompany runners in latter sections of the course (but only for advice and to keep them from getting lost, not for carrying food or water). Ultrarunners can—much of the time—bring support crews, men and women who provide food, water, updates on competitors, and reassurance that you can, in fact, continue when you are sure you will collapse.
Nearly all ultras are run continuously, meaning that there is no point at which the clock stops and everyone gets to retire for a large plate of pasta and a well-deserved night’s sleep, like competitors in the Tour de France do. That’s part of the challenge and appeal of the event. You keep going in situations where most people stop. You keep running while other people rest.
But that was my problem—it was other people who stopped to rest. Not me. But now it was me. I simply couldn’t go on.
My buddy and support crew member Rick was telling me he knew I could do it. He was mistaken. What had I done wrong? Was it my training and lack of recovery? Was it my race schedule? Had my mental approach been wrong? Was it what I had been eating? Was I thinking too much?
Ultramarathons give you plenty of time to think—that is, when you’re not watching out for mountain lions, avoiding sheer drops, or responding to grinning rocks and gibbering trees (which your mind can’t believe are mere phantasms). Stopping in an ultra, quitting, gives you even more time to ponder. But perhaps I wanted time to stop. Maybe I was meant to lie here on my back in the desert to question why I was running through an oven. Why was I subjecting myself to this torture?
I started running for reasons I had only just begun to understand. As a child, I ran in the woods and around my house for fun. As a teen, I ran to get my body in better shape. Later, I ran to find peace. I ran, and kept running, because I had learned that once you started something you didn’t quit, because in life, much like in an ultramarathon, you have to keep pressing forward. Eventually I ran because I turned into a runner, and my sport brought me physical pleasure and spirited me away from debt and disease, from the niggling worries of everyday existence. I ran because I grew to love other runners. I ran because I loved challenges and because there is no better feeling than arriving at the finish line or completing a difficult training run. And because, as an accomplished runner, I could tell others how rewarding it was to live healthily, to move my body every day, to get through difficulties, to eat with consciousness, that what mattered wasn’t how much money you made or where you lived, it was how you lived. I ran because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminded me that I could overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties was life.
Could I quit and not be a quitter?
“You’ve done it before,” Rick said. “You can do it again.”
I appreciated the optimism. I also appreciated its idiocy.
At another time, on another summer night, in another race, I might have gazed in wonder at the stars glittering against the velvety black night. I might have swiveled my head to peer at the snowy Sierra Nevada peaks looming like grouchy sentries on the edge of the endless desert and seen, not scowling defeat, but majesty. I would have moved toward the mountains’ dark, disapproving bulk until it had transformed to welcome.
“My stomach,” I moaned. “My stomach.” A couple of my crew members suggested I should crawl into the coffin-sized, ice-filled cooler they had lugged up the road to get my core temperature down, but I had tried that already. Rick told me to put my feet in the air—that might help me feel better. He told me I should do it on the side away from the road so the other crews wouldn’t be able to see me, because their reports would only embolden their runners. Didn’t he realize that the other runners didn’t need emboldening? The guy with the reputation wasn’t going anywhere.
Not moving was actually pleasant. It wasn’t nearly as shameful as I had imagined. It allowed me to ponder my hubris.
If it had been a movie, this was the place where I would close my eyes and hear the faint, strangled voice of my bedridden mother, telling me she loved me and that she knew I could do whatever I wanted, and I would have flushed with shame, and then I would have heard the authoritative voice of my father, telling me, “Sometimes you just do things!” I would have risen to my elbows, shut my eyes, and pictured all the middle school kids who had called me Pee-Wee, and they would have melted into all the naysayers who had questioned me at the beginning of my career, who said that I was nothing to worry about, I was nothing but a flatlander. In that movie I would have risen to my knees and suddenly remembered who I was—I was a runner!—and I would have pulled myself up, stood tall, and started walking, then loping, into the thick desert night, chasing down the two seasoned veterans in front of me as a wolf chases doomed field mice.
I tried to puke some more, but it was all dry heaving, the type that is excruciating with every empty pump of the stomach.
My crew and close friends told me to close my eyes and relax. Instead, I stared at the stars. Everyone and the desert disappeared. Loss of peripheral vision was one manifestation of dehydration and passing out. Was that what was happening? It was as if I was looking through a tunnel at a small circle in an infinite, glittery sky.
My crew told me to take some little sips of water, but I couldn’t. I was thinking, “I don’t think this is gonna happen,” and then I heard a noise, and it was my voice saying what I was thinking: “I don’t think this is gonna happen.”
The stars didn’t care. That’s another pleasure of running an ultra: the absolute and soothing indifference of the land and the sky. So I made a mistake? It wasn’t the worst thing in the world; the constellations weren’t gossiping about me. Maybe this would help me with humility. Maybe dropping out and being defeated would renew my spirit. Maybe cutting one race short was a good thing.
If only I could have made myself believe that.
Should I have listened to the trainers and doctors who said that athletes needed to fill their bodies with animal protein? Should I have trained less? I had thought I was invincible. I closed my eyes.
I had been schooled by nuns, raised by a mother who had been sprinkled with holy water from Lourdes, hoping it would help her rise from her wheelchair. Now it was me who couldn’t rise.
I hadn’t always been the fastest runner, but I had always considered myself one of the toughest. Maybe acceptance of my limits was the toughest thing of all. Maybe staying where I was wasn’t weak but strong. Maybe accepting my limits meant it was time to stop being a runner, to start being something else. But what? If I wasn’t a runner, who was I?
I looked again at the stars. They had no opinion on the matter.
Then, from the desert, a voice, an old familiar voice.
“You’re not gonna win this fucking race lying down in the dirt. C’mon, Jurker, get the fuck up.”
It was my old friend Dusty. That made me smile. He almost always made me smile, even when everyone around him was cringing.
“Get the fuck up!” Dusty yelled, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
“Sweeney is out there dying, and you’re gonna take that dude. We’re gonna take that dude!”
I looked at my friend. Couldn’t he see that I wasn’t going to take anyone?
He squatted, folded himself until our faces were inches apart. He looked into my eyes.
“Do you wanna be somebody, Jurker? Do you wanna be somebody?”